Think, Know, Prove: Research Papers

Think, Know, Prove is a regular Saturday feature, where a topic with both mystery and importance is posted for community discussion. The title is a shortened version of the Investigative Mantra: What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove? and everything from wild speculation to resource referencing fact is welcome here.

So, I’ve been reading a lot about reading and writing this summer, while trying to revamp the things that I do with respect to both. Along the way, I’ve seen story after essay ripping on the idea of assigning research papers (and even argumentative or analytical essays of any sort, i.e., academic forms of writing in general) as here and, again, here (there were others but I can’t seem to find them now). Over and over again, I’ve come across ideas for alternatives (does anyone assign book or album or movie reviews as papers? I thought of that as a possibility for both pre-writing reading (since examples are easy to find) and then writing assignments after reading this article by Robert Pinsky (!) on the “rules” for good book reviews and this fun to read example (sorry Kamran; I know you liked the book–hope this doesn’t ruin it for you).

And it seems like I can’t read a piece about writing without it mentioning this hunk of research from Stanford (of which,for all it’s appeal and purported influence, I can’t seem to make heads or tails in terms of concrete applications in my classroom).

Then, recently, the research paper complainer cited above had some second thoughts (published here), which has me all ambivalent about teaching academic writing all over again.

And so I ask, when it comes to teaching writing (specifically in terms of forms of writing): What do you think? What do you know? What can you Prove?

Intellectual Dispositions

It’s a phrase from John Dewey, and it’s both intriguing (after all, don’t we want to affect students’ openness to the unknown, revitalizing and restoring the human curiosity that kids have in buckets and institutionalized schooling does so much to tamp down? and don’t we want students disposed to respond to novelty with certain kinds of attitudes and mindsets? I think we do) and a little horrifying–bringing to mind phrases like creepy “re-education” phrases like “installation of habits,” and monitoring of attitudes, and thought police.

I attended a horrifying session at a Philosophy of Education conference last fall with a couple of department colleagues that featured a pair of education professors from Northern Illinois talking about the means (and the associated problems) for assessing the intellectual dispositions that the national education standards require their program to “instill” and “measure.” They have something called “The Office of Dispositions” there. Also creepy sounding, and the effect on students was rather disturbing (they speak of getting a disposition as if it were a demerit).

I bring all of this up because of this article on new work developing Standards for Post Secondary Writing:

The task of assessing what college students learn has grown increasingly urgent in conversations about the future of higher education. For many, determining what happens in class can only be accomplished by measuring consistently applicable outcomes. It is notable, then, that the chief associations of faculty members who teach composition and writing have released guidelines for incoming students that advocate for more general approaches to writing rather than prescribing specific methods or ways to measure success…[The list] seeks to define the concepts that are associated with “deep and permanent learning.”

These concepts foster what its authors call “habits of mind” in writing, reading and critical analysis, which can be cultivated by middle and high school teachers and serve students well once they enter college or the workplace. The authors of the framework identified and defined eight such habits:

  • Curiosity, the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness, the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking.
  • Engagement, a sense of being invested and involved in learning.
  • Creativity, the ability to use new approaches to come up with, explore and express ideas.
  • Persistence, the ability to sustain interest in a project.
  • Responsibility, the ability to understand the consequences of one’s actions.
  • Flexibility, the ability to adapt to situations and demands.
  • Metacognition, the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking and the ways knowledge is structured.

Innocuous enough of a list, it seems, but I can’t help wondering how, once it gets tied to the “outcomes” processes and methods, the whole thing won’t turn into an “Office of Dispositions” and some sort of new-progressive nightmare of Good-think.

Perhaps, I’m not disposed correctly…

On Writing

This article from The Chronicle might be useful to you or your students. From the article:

Four years ago, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle Review cataloging “The Seven Deadly Sins of Student Writers“—the errors and infelicities that cropped up most frequently in my students’ work. Since then a whole new strain of bad writing has come to the fore, not only in student work but also on the Internet, that unparalleled source for assessing the state of the language.

The author then goes on to show and explain 11 common writing “mistakes.” Definitely worth reading.

(And there is no need to tell me how many of these I break on a near-daily basis, especially in regard to commas. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “If I had more time, my postings would be shorter (and grammatically sounder,” (unless that isn’t a word)). I make no apologies for my comma splices (except to Willard).)

Also, while we’re talking about writing, don’t forget this from Sarah Liston:

[The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Committee’s first [spring] meeting is on Thursday, February 3rd at 2:00pm in room 1046.  A secondary meeting on Monday, February 7th (also at 2:00pm in room 1046) is also scheduled for those that are interested in the committee but could not attend the first meeting on Thursday…
The committee should be made up of faculty across disciplines (and the more diverse the disciplines the better for this committee) and in part, it will develop ideas to keep faculty involved and excited about the prospects of the Writing Across the Curriculum program, will discuss the challenges of WAC both for students and faculty (since it is not a ‘one size fits all’ type of plan for any college), and will discuss WAC research to see how it fits into our identity.
If you have any questions send Sarah an email or get her on the horn (x5894).

A New Fiction Culture in America

Twice now, I’ve printed this article out and twice, I’ve handed it to a student whom I know to be interested in writing. Both times, the recipient glanced down at it, then, still talking, started skimming through a paragraph or two, then kind of stopped talking–reading by then–before saying, “Well, I’m going to go sit down and read this now.”

It’s that interesting. Print it out and pass it on to a writer you know (or at least forward the link). A taster:

There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 854! This explosion has created a huge source of financial support for working writers, not just in the form of lecture fees, adjunctships, and temporary appointments—though these abound—but honest-to-goodness jobs: decently paid, relatively secure compared to other industries, and often even tenured. It would be fascinating to know the numbers—what percentage of the total income of American fiction writers comes from the university, and what percentage from publishing contracts—but it’s safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world. This situation—of two complementary economic systems of roughly matched strength—is a new one for American fiction. As the mass readership of literary fiction has peaked and subsided, and the march of technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety, if not its much-advertised death throes, the MFA program has picked up the financial slack and then some, offering steady payment to more fiction writers than, perhaps, have ever been paid before.

Everyone knows this. But what’s remarked rarely if at all is the way that this balance has created, in effect, two literary cultures (or, more precisely, two literary fiction cultures) in the United States: one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine, Calif., to Austin, Texas, to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Tallahassee, Fla. (with a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd Street). The superficial differences between these two cultures can be summed up charticle-style: short stories vs. novels; Amy Hempel vs. Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs. galley copies; Poets & Writers vs. the New YorkObserver; Wonder Boys vs. The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference vs. the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs. publishing parties; literary readings vs. publishing parties; staying home vs. publishing parties. But the differences also run deep. Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.

Read the rest. It’s worth it. Even if it isn’t until next week…


November Cornucopia (Now Without Corn!)

A few odds and ends, all from The Week:

~Smart kids tend to drink more when they grow up, apparently.

~Writing by hand makes kids smarter, explaining why cursive should still be taught in schools (sort of).

~Year round schooling is become more and more common for kids (I don’t think it will happen for college kids, though–at least not until they are unable to make enough working summer jobs to contribute meaningfully to their college tuition bills…oh, wait; that’s now).

Writing Advice

This article seems very true to me:

Rachel Toor and other writers on these pages have talked about how hard it is to write well, and of course that’s true. Fortunately, the standards of writing in most disciplines are so low that you don’t need to write well. What I have tried to produce below are 10 tips on scholarly nonfiction writing that might help people write less badly.

The article is called, “Ten Tips on How to Write Less Badly” Worth the read (and worth sharing with students), I think.

Bad Writing

I’ve been reading a lot of it lately, though less than at the beginning of the year. Since reading this piece, from The Chronicle, published about a week ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ideas in it (and equally as much about the criticisms in the comments).

And not just because I violate all of the rules all the time (but partly because of that, no doubt). It’s worth reading; especially if you have any interest in the question of what is (and isn’t) good writing.

Developmental Writing Needs Attention, Too

Back in mid-March, a flurry of articles came out about changes in teaching composition, especially related to developmental writing. I’m sure you all remember the hootenanny about developmental math, and the discussions related to the district hopes for revising our current process. Developmental math is a big part of our incoming students’ experience, but so, too, is developmental writing.

Lest we be accused of ignoring this important topic, here is some interesting reading inspired by events and presentations made at the Conference on College Composition and Communication about:

1. Some research into what happens when English composition courses are moved in part or in whole to online environments. From the article:

The early results show some encouraging signs (such as better course retention rates that some might expect) but also some findings that worried some here (such as a minimalist approach to training instructors and little evidence that colleges are thinking about the pedagogical implications of the shift).

And there are signs that a pattern that has long been a reality for classroom writing instruction — in which colleges ignore guidelines about recommended class sizes — may be repeating itself online.

2) The pressure on community colleges to make space for students overwhelming suggested educational policy related to the optimum class size for writing instruction. From the article:

Class sizes and teaching loads for composition courses at community colleges — courses typically required of most students and seen as crucial for college success — appear to be growing well beyond levels that are considered educationally sound.

3) The mismatch between the need for skilled teachers of composition at community colleges with the sorts of preparation most English and Literature majors receive from advanced degree programs. From the article:

“I was incredibly well trained to teach college writing, but only one course at a time. How do you teach five classes when you’ve only been trained to teach one?”That was the question of a community college writing instructor who has taught herself how to manage the workload she now has. Her experience reflects the sense shared by many composition experts that it’s time for a new approach to teaching those who will teach writing at community colleges.

3b) Just yesterday, this follow up, by one of the people who hosted the workshop showed up on the same site, with warnings for both PhDs and Community College departments. It has some interesting links in it, too.

So, writing instructors out there, what else do we need to know?